Britain has had a rich and varied history of manufacturing. From essential components of trade like coal and steel, consumables like pottery, furniture, and textiles, and even to contemporary manufacturer of specialist products and digital technologies, the history of industry and production in the UK is interesting, varied, and always a contentious subject.
One of the most contentious areas of this discussion in recent years has been the position of car manufacturing in the UK. With media coverage of plant closures and job losses seeming popping up at least twice a year, it seems strange to think that there are still car manufacturers in this country: we’re always told that they’re moving to European countries and further afield but the UK still has a number of car manufacturing plants – like Ginetta Cars, the specialist racing and sports car builders in West Yorkshire.
Over the past 50 to 60 years, British manufacturing has seen varied fluctuations in the number of cars that have been produced purely in the UK: between 1950 and 1960, the number of cars produced in the UK for those years leapt from 523,000 to a whopping 1,353,000! The highest production level since 1930 was 1999 – surprisingly for some, perhaps – when the UK produced an incredible 1,787,000 cars.
However, since then, there have been significant plant closures that have affected, if not the actuality, but the perception of the state of motor manufacturing in the UK. The UK still produces around 1,344,000 cars a year (figure from 2011) but certain historically-important manufacturers have now shifted premises and factories to other countries. This includes higher-end brands like Aston Martin and Jaguar, but also some household names including Peugeot and even the Reliant Robin.
The key issue with many of these plant closures has not only been the loss of manufacturing and historic car brands from Britain, but the loss of jobs as a result of these closures. When the Jaguar manufacturing plant in Coventry closed in 2005, there were around 400 manufacturing job losses and a huge 750 administrative job losses: a significant number for the West Midlands, an area that has suffered sustained industrial decline for a number of decades.
The movement of manufacture for industries like car production is also part of a wider movement from national industry to international industry: contemporary products no longer just come from one place but instead different components come from different places, and are designed, made and constructed in a number of different countries. Rather than the problems we associate with British car manufacture being unique to that industry, the problems are faced by a number of different industries that are finding it difficult to sustain the costs of UK manufacture and labour compared to the cheaper costs that can be found in other countries – despite the poor working conditions that are likely to be found there.
However, the UK still does produce a significant number of vehicles each year, and certain makes – like Nissan – are expanding their plants. We may have had a hey-day of motor vehicle manufacturing, but the design and innovation skills of British engineers suggest that the country still has an integral role to play in the future development of the industry.